MOSTHistory Collection Series: Fern Catherine Welch

By Kelly Francis-Love

 

In the United States in the early 1900s, women were still considered second-class citizens.  With the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, they earned the right to vote, but did not necessarily make progress in the economic field.  Although women’s employment rates actually rose during the Great Depression, they often met criticism for their work: many felt a woman who worked took a job away from a man who needed it more.  Too often, women were assumed to be on their way to getting married, so the prevailing attitude was that they didn’t need jobs, as they would soon have a husband to provide for them.  Here in the archives, a fascinating scrapbook documents the career of one of the women who broke that mold.

Fern Catherine Welch became the first female sheriff’s deputy in Hidalgo County in January of 1935 when she was named matron of the Hidalgo County jail.  She kept a scrapbook of her time as matron, and it is an eye-opening window into the past.

The scrapbook contains photos of Ms. Welch and her colleagues as well as newspaper clippings pertaining to cases the sheriff’s department was working on.  The role of the jail matron was to protect and administer to incarcerated women, and there are a number of notes from prisoners thanking Ms. Welch for her kindness in caring for them during their incarceration.

Besides documenting Welch’s career, the scrapbook also reveals something of the lives of the women who were prisoners.  Some of the notes have notations that Ms. Welch made about the individual prisoners.  There is a heart-breaking statement from a teenage girl about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father and brothers.  She bore a child at age 14.  Another item seems to be a goodbye letter from a possibly suicidal woman who was accused of murder; a note later in the scrapbook indicates she was found not guilty.

This scrapbook gives us a glimpse into the life of a groundbreaking woman who also made a difference in the lives of the women around her.